Now that President Bush’s decision early this year to send more troops to Iraq is showing signs of reducing the violence in Baghdad, Senator John McCain, who had long called for beefing up the American military presence there, is betting that the politics of the war are changing as well.
Mr. McCain, Republican of Arizona, is making his early advocacy of the troop increase and his push for a change in strategy a central theme of his presidential campaign. He is using it to distance himself from the Bush administration, whose handling of the war he regularly denounces, and from his Republican rivals, none of whom, he says, displayed the leadership, courage or knowledge necessary to win in Iraq.
“I was the only one, the only candidate for president of the United States on either side” who fought to change course by providing more troops, he told voters in Iowa this week.
“I did everything in my power to try and change that strategy,” he said, referring to the course originally set by President Bush. “I was severely criticized by other Republicans for being disloyal. I said we had to have the strategy we are using now.”
Mr. McCain is asking voters where his main Republican rivals — Rudolph W. Giuliani, Mitt Romney and Fred D. Thompson — were as the situation in Iraq deteriorated, pointing to their silence as evidence of lack of experience.
“If they want to be president of the United States, they should have informed themselves,” he said in an interview in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. While not questioning his opponents’ patriotism, he said: “Giuliani could have informed himself by remaining on the Iraq Study Group. Some people tell me that he was fired. Some people tell me that he withdrew. Whatever it is, he didn’t show much interest in a war where young Americans are fighting and dying.”
More than any Republican candidate, Mr. McCain has been an outspoken supporter of the war. While that appeared for much of the year to be a problem for him as the public grew increasingly disenchanted with the lack of progress in stabilizing Iraq, he is casting the glimmers of improvement there as a vindication and a selling point as he tries to get his campaign back on track.
A poll by CBS News last month found that 33 percent of Americans believed the troop increase was making the situation better in Iraq, with 41 percent saying it had made no difference and 13 percent saying it had made things worse.
Mr. McCain said that he did not know if Americans would be receptive to his view on the war, and that his unstinting support for the invasion might have cost him the support of many of the independent voters who helped propel his campaign in 2000.
But he said that just as he had taken blame for the failures of the war, he would ask voters to recognize where he deserves credit.
When Senator Sam Brownback, the Kansas Republican who recently ended his own bid for the presidential nomination and who had initially opposed the troop increase, endorsed Mr. McCain in Iowa on Wednesday, he said he had been wrong and Mr. McCain right. He even referred to the stepped-up effort as the “McCain surge.”
But in highlighting the successes of the surge, Mr. McCain is walking a fine line, since Iraq has more often than not served as a graveyard for optimism.
When Mr. McCain visited a Baghdad market in April, he was accused of painting an overly sunny description of the area’s safety, failing to note that he had been guarded by more than 100 soldiers in armored Humvees.
Mr. McCain said he regretted how his poorly worded comments seemed to underplay the difficulties of the war. Now he is usually careful to highlight the challenges that remain in Iraq, specifically citing the problems with the country’s government and a corrupt police force.
“I know and you know how frustrated and saddened Americans are about this war,” Mr. McCain said in Iowa. He said the war “was terribly mishandled for nearly four years” by Mr. Bush and former Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld.
When Mr. McCain’s wife, Cindy, joined him recently in South Carolina, she told voters that they have one son, a marine, overseas, and another at the United States Naval Academy.
Mr. McCain said he started to realize America was off course on a trip to Basra in the summer of 2003, when a British colonel warned him that the situation, unchanged, was headed for disaster. He said that when he raised those concerns with Mr. Rumsfeld, he was ignored.
In November 2004, Mr. McCain delivered a detailed speech to the Council on Foreign Relations in which he blasted the administration and critics of the war. “Simply put, there does not appear to be a strategy behind our current force levels in Iraq other than to preserve the illusion that we have sufficient forces in place to meet our objectives,” he said.
But he campaigned for Mr. Bush in 2004, and even as Mr. McCain pushed for changes, he also often talked about progress.
Other Republican candidates have said much less on Iraq, and their campaigns rejected Mr. McCain’s assertions that they had fallen short in their approaches.
Adm. Robert J. Natter, an adviser to Mr. Giuliani, said: “I assume that Senator McCain’s emotions got the better of him. To even suggest Mayor Giuliani does not care about our servicemen and women serving and dying overseas is an example of letting politics come before thoughtful commentary on matters of national security.”
Mr. Giuliani, the former New York mayor, has said he withdrew from the Iraq Study Group because he was considering running for president and did not want to interject partisan politics into the process. But he also missed several meetings before he withdrew, giving lucrative speeches on some meeting days.
A search of archived news articles and transcripts from 2003 through fall 2006 turned up no reports of his calling for a change of course in military strategy in Iraq. Nor could his campaign point to any public statements on the issue. When he introduced his “12 Commitments” this summer, which he said represented America’s most important challenges, there was no mention of Iraq.
Mr. Giuliani rarely speaks in detail of mistakes made in the war. In fact, he has said repeatedly that “we focus too much on Iraq,” obscuring the broader “terrorists’ war against us.”
Mr. Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, went to Iraq for a day in May 2006, just months after the bombing of a golden-domed shrine in Samarra set off sectarian killing that was still sweeping the country. “I am not engaging in Monday morning quarterbacking,” Mr. Romney told The Boston Globe. “I supported the war, as did Congress and many Democrats. We have learned some lessons about the period immediately following major conflict. I believe we are doing the right thing.”
Aside from mentioning “problems” in Iraq, he did not push for a change of course. In September 2006, as the surge was being considered, Mr. Romney said, “My inclination would be more boots on the ground, not less.”
A spokesman, Kevin Madden, said, “Governor Romney is not interested in the idea of claiming credit for being the first to criticize.” He added, “Governor Romney is interested in showing the kind of leadership it takes to deliver solutions and attain results.”
Mr. Thompson, a Tennessean who voted in 2002 to authorize the war just months before leaving the Senate, said little in public about war strategy in later years.
“Despite retiring from the Senate in 2002, Fred Thompson has never hesitated from openly and honestly assessing the situation in Iraq,” said Todd Harris, a spokesman for the campaign.
Alain Delaquérière contributed reporting.